Examining an often-overlooked phrase

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Two recent decisions over the use of the phrase “in the year of our Lord” highlight how much — or how little — is at stake in the formal designation often found in official proclamations of dates.

The first incident occurred in San Antonio where a group of Trinity University students unsuccessfully lobbied the school administration and trustees to remove the phrase from student diplomas.

“By having the phrase ‘In the Year of Our Lord,’ it is directly referencing Jesus Christ, and not everyone believes in Jesus Christ,” one Muslim student told the San Antonio Express-News.

After more than a year of debate, Trinity, a private, nonreligious institution with Presbyterian roots, announced in April that it would retain the six much-discussed words on its diplomas.

“Trinity is very proud of its 141-year history and religious heritage. It defines our values and informs our future,” the university president said in an April 22 news release.

Though the common designation remained on the university’s diplomas, less than two weeks later it went missing from another kind of proclamation. This time the omission was by the president of the United States, on the occasion of proclaiming May as Jewish American Heritage Month.

The traditional reference to Jesus has been used to signify dates in presidential proclamations, including those issued in the past by President Barack Obama as well as by Bill Clinton and George W. Bush announcing Jewish American Heritage celebrations. This year’s declaration, however, simply referred to the “thirtieth day of April, in the year two thousand ten,” as first reported by the New Jersey Jewish News.

Lest one accuse the president of forsaking his faith, all other recent proclamations, including those in honor of Mother’s Day and National Women’s Health Week, have carried the phrase “in the year of our Lord two thousand ten,” indicating that its omission from the April 30 declaration seems to be not a stance on the president’s views of the establishment clause but merely a sensitive gesture toward Jewish heritage.

No great fuss was made over the president’s choice to omit the reference, though the silence is due more likely to the omission’s initially going largely unnoticed than to a consensus that it doesn’t matter. When Politico’s Ben Smith drew attention to the move on his popular blog three days later, the blog entry elicited an astonishing 437 comments, the highest number by far of any of Politico’s nearly 100 blog items from that week.

What to make of the varying decisions made by Trinity University and President Obama in using the phrase “in the year of our Lord”?

That a private, liberal arts college would ban the use of “in the year of our Lord” from official documents seems highly unlikely. Such a decision would surely encourage challenges to the religious nature of university mottos nationwide, from Columbia University’s “In lumine Tuo videbimus lumen” (“In Your light, we will see light,” from Psalm 36) to George Washington University’s “Deus Nobis Fiducia” (“In God, Our Trust”).

(Notably, however, Harvard University prefers to use only the first word — a secular, shortened form — of its original 1692 motto, “Veritas Christo et Ecclesiae” (“Truth for Christ and Church”).

Were Trinity to alter its diplomas, it would be difficult to justify the continued usage of its own motto, “E Tribus Unum” (“From Three, One”) or even its very name.

The president’s declaration, in contrast, was nothing more than a small, thoughtful gesture aimed at Jews, who rarely use the Christian formulation. Neither the American Jewish Congress nor the Anti-Defamation League has expressed strong feelings about the use of “in the year of our Lord” in presidential proclamations.

What is so vexing about the Trinity case is that religious offense can be claimed only if one applies an extremely literal reading of the words. “‘The Year of our Lord’ in a date is about as religious as Providence, Rhode Island, or Corpus Christi, Texas,” First Amendment law professor Eugene Volokh wrote on his blog on March 29. “The meaning no doubt stems from Christianity, as so much in our culture stems from Christianity. Yet all the terms have acquired secular meaning, and using them does not require belief in the theology from which the terms originally stemmed.”

To be sure, the phrasing appears in the Constitution (“Done in Convention by the Unanimous Consent of the States present the Seventeenth Day of September in the Year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and Eighty seven and of the Independence of the United States of America the Twelfth”), but it’s absent from the Declaration of Independence.

One could continue hunting for uses and omissions of the dating convention, but the debate is ultimately a trivial one, as its use (or omission), at worst, does nothing more than offer slight offense to one group or another.

As Rabbi Joshua Lesser of the Atlanta Faith Alliance told Politics Daily for an April 25 story, “I am more interested in addressing areas of quality of life and impositions created by the majority faith’s perspective, like the inability in some courtrooms to wear a hijab or a yarmulke.”

The decisions ultimately reached by both Trinity and President Obama did, at least, lead to substantive conversations on campus and in the news media about inclusivity, multifaith cultures, and respecting religious differences — nothing trivial, to be sure.

Robert M. Bernstein is a religious-liberty fellow at the First Amendment Center in Washington, D.C. He graduated from Princeton University, majoring in religion with a focus on religion in America and religion and civil society.

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